Mourning the death of a child, and experiencing the grieving process, can be challenging and create long-term distress. When coping and healing from a traumatic event like stillbirth, music and song lyrics can create connections that often evoke emotional responses.
For Richfield couple Elizabeth Ahlin and Sam Golgert, music became an essential part of their healing process after the loss of their child in August 2018.
Like many expecting parents, Ahlin and Golgert experienced excitement and joy when they found out they were having a girl, who they fondly named “Little Miss.” Along with the excitement, Ahlin also experienced the typical anxiety that many women have during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“Everything was fine,” said Ahlin. “I had finally gotten to the point where I felt I could relax. All of the risk factors that I had — we had weathered all of that, and it was okay.”
Returning for a scheduled scan at 22 weeks, Ahlin and Golgert received the heartbreaking news that Little Miss no longer had a heartbeat, and had died. While still in shock, the couple immediately had to choose one of several options related to the delivery process.
“One of the things that is so hard about this, is your time with your child is so brief,” said Ahlin. “You get to hold them for such a short amount of time, and when you let them go — that’s forever.”
“It took me a long time to process, because I could not process this all at once,” said Golgert. “My favorite metaphor for that time was being keelhauled. That is what it felt like. My heart was keelhauled over and over again.”
Affecting approximately one out of every 100 babies, stillbirth occurs an estimated 24,000 times per year in the United States. The trauma of the experience is often felt long after. Couples like Ahlin and Golgert often immediately begin finding ways to cope.
Besides connecting with other parents dealing with loss in a group therapy setting, Ahlin decided to curate a music playlist that captured Little Miss and her own emotions related to their time together.
“You are seeing your own self expressed in their words and music,” Ahlin said about artists on her playlist. “For me, it was incredibly important.”
“In the beginning, it was very hard to listen to it without being overwhelmingly emotional, which was fine, because that is what I really needed,” said Ahlin. “As time goes on, and while I may still cry, what I feel is also a joy, and connection to my daughter. I can be at work, put my headphones in, and turn on my Little Miss playlist. It feels a little bit like I am holding her.”
“Little Miss” Playlist (as explained by Ahlin)
“The song is written about a friend who lost their child,” said Ahlin about this first song on her playlist. “The song is about the hopes and excitement you have when you are pregnant. At the end of the song, it’s clear that the baby does not live.”
“When I first listened to it, what struck me is that it felt how it was — when it first happens and you are just trying to get by day to day,” said Ahlin. “It’s like this whole world is going on around you, and you can’t feel it, connect with it or hear it. You feel like you are underwater. To me, it really captured that. One of the lines in it is ‘unimaginable pain,’ which is how it feels.”
“The whole idea is if I could just see you, just for a minute, and hold your face — that would be enough for them,” said Ahlin about her interpretation of this song. “It resonated with me pretty directly.”
“It speaks to all of the things you feel,” said Ahlin. “It says, ‘I love you to the moon and back. I know you know how far that is because you’re already there.’”
“Something’s not right, there aren’t many stars in the sky tonight,” Ahlin quotes. She says the song “evokes the feeling that you are quietly screaming all the time. You feel like you have this perpetual, internal scream that no one can hear. In the lyrics and the atmosphere of that song, it really evokes that.”
“It’s not about loss, but it’s a lullaby,” said Ahlin. “I love the lyrics that say, ‘How long do you want to be loved? Is forever enough?’ In the beginning, it was painful to hear about it, because it talks about hearing a child laugh, and things that we will never get to hear, but I think if she had lived, I would have sung it to her.”
“I sang this to her in the hospital,” said Ahlin, about her time holding Little Miss after delivery.
“Adams wrote the song about a friend’s miscarriage,” Ahlin said.
“Allen wrote this when she was in the hospital when this [stillbirth] was happening,” said Ahlin. “‘How could this be happening to anyone but me? Someone take my place.’ This is very much how I felt. I remember being in the hospital thinking, how is this real?”
“I think it is beautiful,” said Ahlin. “I love the music. I put it at the end of the playlist. It has a hopeful and upbeat feel. It is all about feeling his son in everyday things like the wind, and this idea that he will see his son again. It would be amazing if it were true. Somehow it makes me cry, but gives me hope.”
Ahlin often listens to her playlist as a way to cope with her loss. She feels a connection with her daughter through music about this familiar experience.
“I wanted something where everything running through the lyrics, and every note of this, is about a loss that had something to do with the kind of loss we had,” said Ahlin. “I want to feel Little Miss reverberate through every note. It does for me.”
As time moves forward, Ahlin and Golgert continue to listen to the music that reminds them of Little Miss, with a fresh and changing perspective.
“For me, it’s gone from being an emotional release, to another thing that connects me directly to my daughter,” said Ahlin. “It makes me feel close to her. It makes me feel warm, and happy in the same way that I feel destroyed emotionally. When you are grieving a child, all of those things are wrapped up together. That is what this playlist is to me now. It makes me feel like she’s with me.”
Ahlin and Golgert also believe that talking about child loss, miscarriage, and stillbirth should be more common, comfortable, and stigma-free, because this helps the healing and grieving process.
“I would rather have some people feel a couple of minutes of awkwardness, than hide my daughter who I am proud of and love,” said Ahlin. “I will love her forever, and I want to honor and serve her that way.”
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. Read more on the song “Comeback” by Prince, and his wife Mayte Garcia’s perspective on losing a child; talking about loss; and music as a form of healing here.
Marla Khan-Schwartz is a writer for The Current’s blog who has a specific background and interest in counseling psychotherapy, and public health emergency preparedness.